A Touch of Class

Following on from the success of the last session, it’s time to plan for the next session, which will cover Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon – Part Two. The PCs have finally escaped their prison cell, and now get to explore more of the dungeon as they seek a way out. At the same time, the players will get to explore and further develop their characters, as they decide their classes, and gather armour and weapons that they can use to help in their escape.

Losing the Training Wheels

It’s important to understand that from now on, the gloves are off, and the PCs will be able to die. This can be quite jarring for newer players as they are still exploring the game and developing their characters.

Even though the PCs will still get quite a few advantages as they continue to learn the game, and we slowly develop the system we are using, death becomes a real possibility, but the most important thing is to keep the game moving.

Key to this is to make use of the party stable. There are a number of additional characters that the players can use to continue their adventure, chosen from those that the players decided against in the last session.

None of these characters have been developed beyond their descriptions, so players will have to bring such characters up to the same standard as the current PCs.

Luckily, for now this information is just the character’s ability scores, which were assigned in the previous session. As we progress through this session, further details may also need to be chosen, such as classes, armour and weapons.

Even though death is possible, it should be noted that we can use d20 rules for death and dying, where characters are disabled and dying at 0 hit points or less, and they will only die after taking an additional 25% of damage (rounding up). This gives the PCs time to try and save their characters should they fall in combat.

Although death is a possibility, it is not the aim of the encounters in this part of the adventure, as Zanzer wants to take the party prisoner. As such, creatures will not target unconscious and dying characters.

Should the active party be defeated, the players can use their back up characters to continue their adventures. It is entirely possible that if their previous party was defeated, but not killed, that their new active party may be able to rescue them.

Even if the the entire stable is defeated, as long as some of the PCs survived, they are likely to wake up back in their cell, ready to escape again. Additional prisoners may be present if the players need extra characters if too many were accidentally killed.

Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon – Part Two

The second part of Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon features four key scenes, as follows:

  • Assigning Classes
  • Armoured Guards
  • Melee Weapons
  • Ranged Combat

Looking at the experiences from our previous session, four scenes should be enough for a single session.

Assigning Classes

At the end of Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon Part One, the PCs had managed to escape their cell and explore the first few rooms in the complex. They had fought a few combats, and were left in a room where they found several heaped suits of armour.

The PCs were still bare bones at this point, having a basic description and assigned ability scores. This provides the core of a basic character, but didn’t include probably the most important part of a Player Character – their Class.

A class is a sort of template for the abilities that the PC has. It defined what they are good at, and ultimately what role they will have in an adventuring party. In early editions of Dungeons and Dragons, a class not only defined what they can do now, but also how they would develop in the future. So choosing a class for your character was even more important in these versions of the game.

In later editions of D&D, multiclassing became an option, where the PCs were able to choose to take more than one class as they develop, giving characters much more flexibility and versatility. Even so, classes still provide the core of the PC’s abilities, and is still a significant decision for a player.

In basic D&D, there were seven basic classes. Four of these were for human characters – Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Magic User. The remaining three were for demihumans – the non-human options for PCs. In basic D&D, each demihuman race was it’s own class, with their own abilities. These were the Dwarf, Elf, and Halfling.

In other versions of D&D, racial choices were seperate from classes, so you can be a Dwarf Fighter, Elf Magic User, or Halfling Thief.

We have already made the decision that all of our PCs will be human, so we don’t have to worry about choosing racial options at this time.

As for classes, there are so many options to chose from, that we would benefit from focusing on the four classes provided by basic D&D, even though we would need to update these to d20 standards.

The four classes in basic D&D cover the four main themes in D&D, and in fantasy adventuring in general. You have the fighter to fight and protect the party, the cleric to heal the party, the thief is a sneaky skill user and trap finder, and the magic user deals with magic. This is diverse enough for the players to choose from, but not too many to overwhelm them with options.

A significant aspect of each class is what armour and weapons the players can use. Fighters can use almost all weapons and armour, but lack any other skills. Meanwhile, the magic user has a very limited range of weapons, and cannot use armour at all, but this is compensated with the fact that they can use powerful magic spells.

This gives us the following classes:

  • Fighter.
  • Cleric.
  • Rogue (renamed Thief).
  • Mage (renamed Magic User).

At this time, magic is going to be discovered in the next part of Escape From Zanzer’s Dungeon, so any Mage character is going to be somewhat under powered compared to other classes until they get to that point.

In basic D&D, the Cleric is a warrior priest that fights undead, and therefore they only gain access to magic when they gain additional power. This means such divine magic doesn’t have to be considered right now, and the Cleric has enough fighting skill that they can survive without needing magic right away.

The Thief had a number of special abilities to compensate for a reduction in fighting ability. These involved a mixture of sneakiness, and with the ability to find traps and open locks. Although these abilities were fixed in early editions of D&D, d20 would present the Rogue as a Thief class replacement, that would become a much more flexible skill-based character.

For now, we can disregard a lot of the abilities of these classes, and instead focus on the armour and weapons they can use. Discovering and fighting with these options is the focus of the remaining three scenes of this part of the adventure.

Axel will choose to become a Fighter. This gives him access to all weapons and armour in the upcoming scenes.

Armoured Guards

At the end of the previous part of the adventure, the party found a number of suits of armour. With each character having chosen a class, they now know what sort of armour they are able to use.

In d20, armour is broken down into three categories: Light, Medium, and Heavy. Each class is given the ability to use categories and types of armour. In addition, classes also define if they can use shields.

These armour proficiencies are as follows:

  • Fighter: Heavy Armour, Medium Armour, Light Armour, and Shields.
  • Cleric: Medium Armour, Light Armour, and Shields.
  • Rogue: Light Armour only.
  • Mage: No armour proficiencies.

The pile of armour includes enough armour for each PC to choose a single suit of armour to wear. They can choose either a suit of Leather Armour or Chainmail Armour.

Having chosen their armour, the PCs can then determine their Armour Class (AC) – the target number opponents need to score in order to hit them. This is worked out in the d20 rules as follows:

  • Armour Class = 10 + Armour Bonus + Dexterity Bonus.

The armour bonus for the types of armour found in the pile is as follows:

  • Leather Armour: Light Armour (+2 Armour Bonus)
  • Chainmail Armour: Medium Armour (+5 Armour Bonus)

Axel will choose to take a suit of chainmail armour. His new Armour Class will be 15.

Having chosen their armour, and updated their characters, a group of hobgoblins enter the room, and a combat ensues. These hobgoblins are armoured, so their Armour Class is 13. However, they do not have weapons, and deal 1d4 points of damage that knocks the PCs unconscious rather than kills them.

Melee Weapons

Entering the next room, the PCs discover racks of melee weapons. This is an opportunity for the PCs to arm themselves.

Weapons are split into Simple and Martial categories. Each class is proficient with weapons as follows:

  • Fighter: All Simple and Martial weapons.
  • Cleric: All Simple and Martial weapons. Clerics are limited to weapons that cause bludgeoning damage only.
  • Rogue: All Simple Weapons, plus the short sword and rapier.
  • Mage: Dagger and Quarterstaff.

Looking through the weapon racks, the PCs can find the following weapons:

  • Dagger: Simple Weapon (1d4 piercing damage)
  • Club: Simple Weapon (1d4 bludgeoning damage)
  • Mace: Simple Weapon (1d6 bludgeoning damage)
  • Spear: Simple Weapon (1d6 piercing damage)
  • Shortsword: Martial Weapon (1d6 piercing damage)
  • Handaxe: Martial Weapon (1d6 slashing damage)
  • Warhammer: Martial Weapon (1d8 bludgeoning damage)
  • Longsword: Martial Weapon (1d8 slashing damage)
  • Halberd: Martial Weapon (1d10 slashing damage)*
  • Greataxe: Martial Weapon (1d8 slashing damage)*
  • Greatsword: Martial Weapon (2d6 slashing damage)*

*These weapons require two hands to use, and cannot be used with a shield.

The PCs get to apply their Strength modifier to damage rolls with melee weapons. Axel will take a longsword to use, and will cause 1d8+2 slashing damage in melee combat.

Once the PCs have chosen a melee weapon each, the PCs hear deep gutteral voices coming from beyond the door. In one round, gnolls will enter the room and attack the party.

The gnolls are AC 14, and cause 1d6+1 bludgeoning damage in melee combat. As they are using weapons, there is a risk of dying in this combat.

Ranged Combat

When the PCs enter the next room, they find a rack of missile weapons and ammunition, as well as an archery target. This is a good time for any PC that wants a missile weapon to take one.

Just like melee weapons, ranged weapons are split into Simple and Martial categories. Each class is proficient in missile weapons as follows:

  • Fighter: All Simple and Martial Weapons.
  • Cleric: All Simple Weapons. Clerics are limited to weapons that cause bludgeoning damage only.
  • Rogue: All Simple Weapons, and Shortbows.
  • Mage: Cannot use missile weapons.

Searching through the racks, the PCs can find the following missile weapons:

  • Sling: Simple Weapon (1d4 bludgeoning damage)
  • Light Crossbow: Simple Weapon (1d6 piercing damage)*
  • Shortbow: Martial Weapon (1d6 piercing damage)**
  • Longbow: Martial Weapon (1d8 piercing damage)**

*Light crossbows require two hands to reload, and take an action to reload.

**These missile weapons require two hands to use.

The PCs also find ammunition to go with these weapons, and can take one quiver of 10 arrows, one case of 10 crossbow bolts, or one pouch of 10 sling bullets each.

In addition to using ranged weapons, melee weapons can be thrown in combat as well. A dagger, spear, or handaxe can be thrown to cause their normal damage.

Axel will take a longbow and a quiver of 10 arrows, and thus can make ranged attacks that cause 1d8 piercing damage.

When the PCs leave the room, they encounter a goblin and two orcs, who engage in ranged combat along the hallway.

The use of ranged weapons in this combat introduces another step in the combat sequence, between moving and melee fighting. During this stage, all those characters using ranged weapons get to attack.

They have an AC of 10, although one orc gains a +4 bonus to AC (for a total of 14) when using a doorway for cover. The PCs can gain a similar +4 bonus to AC if they use the doorway of the room they just left for cover in a similar manner.

Neither the goblin nor the orcs will engage the PCs in melee. The goblin will flee if engaged in melee, but the orcs will stay and fight.

Upon defeating the goblin and the orcs, the party can investigate the nearby room, after which this part of the adventure will end, in preparation for the next part of the adventure, which will be the last part of the tutorial for the PCs. In this final part, they will learn about traps, saving throws, magic, and other abilities that make up being a PC.

What a Result

So, having put everything together according to my plan, including finalising the details for my first session last week, how did it all work out?

Well, I usually write these articles a week or so in advance, so I haven’t actually played our first session yet, but I can look back over what we have covered in our four steps to gaming success.

Following the Formula

Firstly, we have set up the details of our game, including logistical concerns such as when we are playing and how we are running the game, so barring any major issues, we should have played our first session by the time you are reading this article.

One of the key points we decided at this stage was that we would be using Roll20 to actually play the game, and this means that I will have to block out time to sort out the additional assets I need, such as tokens and maps. Luckily for me, Google Images is fantastic for this, as I can easily find all the images I need and cannot create myself – much like I do when finding artwork for this blog. The more effort that I put into this, the better the overall experience will be for everyone.

In the second step, we planned the basics of the campaign, noting that we would focus on a relatively generic, easy to learn campaign. In fact, I decided that the focus of the campaign would be Haven Vale from the Fast Play series of entry-level AD&D games, and other starter sets would be integrated into this campaign using and inside-out design approach.

Ironically, however, I decided that our first adventure wouldn’t be from the Fast Play series, but rather Zanzer’s Dungeon from the Black Box “Easy to Master” Dungeons and Dragon’s Boxed Set. A little minor rework of the adventure was needed to integrate it better into the campaign, but the adventure itself could be used largely as written, and this was covered in our third step, were we planned the adventure itself.

The fourth and final step saw us focus on the details of the first session itself, where we see our newly imprisoned amnesiac adventurers awaken in Zanzer’s Dungeon, and begin the first steps to their adventuring careers, just as our players take their first steps into this introductory campaign to refresh our skills with Dungeons and Dragons.

So, all in all, the four steps have been a success in regards to planning, and hopefully by the time you read this, we will have had a successful first session under our belts.

Into the Future

As for the future? Well, I have further sessions in Zanzer’s Dungeon to prepare, and since the first half of the adventure serves as a tutorial for both the dungeon master and the players into how to design, run, and play a Dungeons and Dragons game, there’s definite potential for a series on adapting the lessons of this adventure into a series on developing the mechanics we will be using for our own d20 homebrew system.

I will also consider whether or not I will share my notes on here, along with session write ups for the future of this game. Right now, these articles are scheduled for release a few days behind the actual sessions, even though they are technically written at least a week in advance, so I might need to juggle the system I am using a bit to make that work.

But as a teaser, and a potential spoiler for my players, I will share something that I worked on in preparation for the first session – a map of Zanzer’s Dungeon that I created in Dungeonographer by Inkwell Ideas. It’s the same layout as the poster map in the boxed set, obviously, but in a format more suitable for Roll20.

Open Session

Last week, we looked at the adventure we will be using to start our campaign – Zanzer’s Dungeon from the Black Box “New Easy to Master” Dungeons and Dragons boxed set released back in the 1990’s.

As we discovered, the adventure is split into four parts, each increasing the complexity of the game until, in part four, the players were using the full basic Dungeons and Dragons rules. Because the adventure is already split into parts, we can use these parts to define our own sessions.

Now, we get to the final step for starting any game – planning for our first session. This initial session helps set the tone of the game, and many players will base their entire opinion of a campaign based on the first session.

The first session also helps the players bond with their characters, and in many cases, the campaign may include a “Session 0” or campaign and character creation session, where the players get together and form the basic of their party, and what their characters would already know. The GM is usually on hand to help the players become integrated with the campaign.

Luckily for us, Zanzer’s Dungeon dispenses with the need for any sort of session 0. The party are semi-blank slates from which the players can get straight into the game and start playing. They play characters imprisoned within Zanzer’s dungeon, destined to become slaves in the mines unless they can escape. These characters are simply names with one-line basic descriptions, and the players get to develop their character over the first three parts of the adventure, as they learn about combat, classes, equipment, and magic.

Learning to Roleplay

The first part focuses on teaching the players the principles of roleplaying and Dungeons and Dragons, and introduces their first few combats. At this point, the PCs are unarmed and unarmoured, and they don’t even have classes at this point. The focus is on their basic abilities, which have remained largely unchanged since the early versions of the game.

After an introduction to roleplaying games, the PCs wake up in a large cell in the centre of the dungeon. The players get to choose from one of eight names, which provides a basic description for the character. Nothing else is defined for them, leaving the characters as truly blank slates for the players.

After this, the PCs meet their first two NPCs, as Jerj the hobgoblin jailer escorts a prisoner called Axel into the cell. Axel is a bully, and claims dominion over the cell, because the PCs don’t look so tough. Here’s where the players determine their ability scores, and then engage in their first checks as they deal with Axel.

Following this scene, Axel angers Jerj, who goes off to get guards to take the party and Axel to the mines. This prompts the party and Axel to plan their escape. They get to confront Jerj, who brings some goblins with him to shackle the PCs.

Having escaped from the cell, the party (including Axel) get to explore a few rooms, facing off against a few other guards. The combat with the guards concludes the first part, and thus concludes our first session.

This is a fairly simple sequence of events, arranged in a somewhat linear path allowing new players to ease into what is potentially their first experience with the Dungeons and Dragons game.

Because Dungeons and Dragons gameplay hasn’t changed significantly since this adventure was released in the 1990’s, some 25 years ago, it’s fairly easy to adapt these simple scenes to the homebrew d20 system that we will be using in our campaign.

Session Outline

The outline above can be broken into four key scenes:

  • Choosing the PCs.
  • Dealing with Axel and Jerj.
  • Escaping the Prison Cell.
  • Further into the Dungeon.

The first scene sees the players choose their PCs for the adventure. This is a good time to introduce the principles of the campaign stable, so we can include ALL 8 of the initial characters, of which the players choose two each to run for this adventure.

The second scene has a few key features, but the most important is that it is at this point that the PCs determine their ability scores. In basic D&D, this was done by rolling 3d6 for each score – Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. These ability scores haven’t changed much over time, and the core of the d20 system sticks with these six scores, even as they move from random generation to deliberate choice.

As such, rather than rolling 3d6, the players will be able to allocate the following values to these ability scores: 19 (+4), 16 (+3), 14 (+2), 13 (+1), 11 (+0), and 9 (-1). It’s worth noting that this range includes the 5E D&D human racial feature where all human characters get +1 to all ability scores. By doing this, we don’t get overwhelmed by looking at racial abilities as we are learning other aspects of the game.

In the third scene, the PCs get into their first combat, as they launch their plan to escape the cell. The party is unarmed and unarmoured, but so are their opponents, so this is a good chance to learn the basics of combat without worrying about modifiers.

In basic D&D, characters got to take one action per turn, and each side acted in turn. The combat sequence saw everyone on each side act depending upon what they were going to do – move, attack, or whatever.

The combat system has seen many changes from this simple concept, as the game has gotten more complex as players can do more. Currently, individuals get their own turns, and characters can do more actions, in any order that they wish.

We will be looking at using d20 combat mechanics rather than basic D&D. However, the combat sequence and party initiative will be retained, as this allows for a more tactical form of combat, as the players can use their characters in any order they wish, with a focus on the order of action types rather than on who performs them.

In addition, we will be looking at using one of the more significant improvements to the system – that characters get two actions per turn, rather than the one of basic D&D. This will allow the characters to move, and to perform an attack, cast a spell, or use another action.

The final scene sees the PCs explore two more rooms after escaping their cell, where they encounter guards. These encounters are quick combats, used more to demonstrate how surprise works as part of combat.

Wrapping Up

Having finished these four scenes, the PCs will be ready for Part 2 of the adventure, where they will choose their first class and obtain their first weapons and armour as they explore further in the dungeon as they seek their escape.

With our first session planned, all that remains is to prepare the assets we need to play, and then for our players to turn up for the first session.

In Search of Adventure

Last week, we looked at the basic set up for our campaign, and I spoke about how impressed I was by the D&D introductory boxed sets, including the D&D Fast Play games, and the Black Box “Easy to Master” D&D game.

This week, we can focus more on preparing the adventure itself, and the decision couldn’t be easier. The adventure provided by the Black Box “Easy to Master” D&D game, Zanzer’s Dungeon, is the perfect example of a teaching adventure that helps new players get started running and playing Dungeons and Dragon.

Zanzer’s Dungeon – A Synopsis

Zanzer’s Dungeon, as part of the Black Box “Easy to Master” Dungeons and Dragons game is designed to teach basic Dungeons and Dragons, which puts it several editions behind the current 5th Edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game, which has evolved from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game.

As such, there are some significant differences between the adventure as written and the homebrew D20 system we will ultimately be using. However, the fundamental principles behind the adventure can be used easily enough.

The synopsis of Zanzer’s Dungeon is quite simple – the PCs start in a cell as Zanzer’s prisoners and destined to work in his salt mines. It’s up to the PCs to escape this fate, gaining experience and learning the game as they do.

As part of the process of learning how to run the Dungeons and Dragon’s game, the GM is taken through a similar solo adventure themselves, allowing them to get to know the adventure before they run it for their players.

Zanzer’s Dungeon is actually broken down into four parts, with each part focusing on certain key mechanics in the Dungeons and Dragons game. The first three parts are ideal for individual sessions, whilst the last part covers what is left of the dungeon itself, as the PCs finally manage to escape, as well as providing the foundations for a second adventure.

Slave to the System

Dungeon adventures have always been seen as perfect sandboxes in which newer players can learn and enjoy the primary aspects of Dungeons and Dragons gameplay – exploring the dungeon, fighting monsters, and finding treasure. It’s a relatively safe environment for the campaign, as what happens in the dungeon often stays in the dungeon, and has very little impact on the rest of the campaign.

By actually starting in the dungeon, as a prisoner, the PCs don’t need to have complex backgrounds to get them into the action. It also serves as an excuse to limit starting equipment and options, so that players are not overwhelmed by what they can do in a D&D game.

All together, this makes the perfect focus for the adventure – getting out of the dungeon is a priority for all the characters, and working together to do so helps create the bond of the original party that can be built upon in future adventures. The campaign itself can remain nebulous and remain in the background until the PCs actually escape.

Learning the Ropes

The tutorial within the adventure sees the players choose from a range of characters, with names and backgrounds provided. These are all single line backgrounds, with a focus on how they are died to the community from which they have been abducted. Although the town they come from is not stated in the adventure, it seems idea to state that the PCs all come from in or around Haven in The Vale.

The first part sees the PCs learn the fundamentals of roleplaying, generate the ability scores of their characters, and engage in their first few combats as they begin their escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon. They do this unarmed and unarmoured.

The second part sees the PCs engage in a couple of combats through rooms where weapons and armour are stored. During this part, the players choose their classes, which determine several limits on what the PCs can use. They learn the basics of melee and ranged combat.

The third part sees the PCs continue their explorations as they deal with one of the fundamental parts of Dungeons and Dragons – Magic. It is here that the PCs learn about saving throws, and tangle with Zanzer Tem for the first time. After forcing Zanzer to flee, the PCs get to discover what they need to learn to use magic themselves, and find their first magic items to play with.

The fourth and final part sees the PCs exploring the rest of the dungeon before making their escape. They leave the inner part of Zanzer’s Dungeon, and the game becomes more open, including exploring a number of rooms that the GM has stocked as part of learning how to be a GM. Finally, the PCs find the exit – a room with a trapdoor in the ceiling leads out to freedom, whilst another leads down into a partially stocked dungeon called Stonefast, provided as the basis of their next adventure.

Although the specifics of the adventure will need to be adapted to teach the D20 system we will be using, the framework itself needs very little work as an adventure. The first two parts will equal a session each, and the third part can be one or two sessions, depending on how the game goes. The last part can be split into multiple sessions as needed, depending upon how thoroughly they explore the dungeon.

The tutorial nature of the adventure means that I can focus on working on the D20 system we will be using as we progress, and I may present this development as a series of articles once I have finished this one. This will allow anybody interested to play using the system we end up developing.

Stable Adventuring

One last issue we need to cover is the stable of PCs for the party. A key component of this stable is the need for a stable Home Base – an easily fortified spot where those PCs that are not actively taking part in the adventure can remain. It must be easily accessible for replacements as needed.

For the purposes of Zanzer’s Dungeon, the initial cell makes an ideal base for this stable. The adventure provides eight possible characters to choose from, and these eight characters make perfect candidates for the stable. The PCs are simple names and backgrounds, so they are great blank canvases to start from.

In addition, the initial cell is isolated at the end of a winding set of rooms in the centre of the salt mine. As such, there’s very little possibility that the initial cell will be discovered by enemies until the middle of part 4 of the adventure. At this point, the PCs have two paths to explore the dungeon in their search for the exit, but the players should have gotten used to running a stable of PCs and protecting those they are not adventuring with.

Final Touches

The flavour of The Vale implies that Zanzer’s Dungeon might work better as a primitive iron ore mine, rather than a salt mine. Zanzer Tem would still use captured slaves to mine and break down the ore, so the core of the adventure remain the same.

All this change really does is allow Zanzer’s Dungeon to be placed as a hidden iron ore mine in the mountains surrounding The Vale. It can be placed relatively close to Haven in The Vale, and the PCs will be able to easily return to Haven after their adventure.

Campaign for Glory

Having completed the important decisions behind our first step, we can move on to the next task – setting up the campaign itself.

For those new to roleplaying and it’s terminology, a campaign refers to the overall storyline and adventure arc of any given game. This story can be as simple as simply being the adventures of a shared party, or it can be as complex as a grand narrative regarding facing off against a giant conspiracy set in a vast world of political intrigue, vast exploration, and psychological thriller. A campaign is the essential backbone upon which any roleplaying game is set – it sets the expectations of the players and their characters alike.

Discussions on campaign development can be an entire series in itself, and one of the most important, and often most engaging, aspect of being a GM. It allows the GM to demonstrate their creativity, as they create the sandbox within which the later steps can improve upon.

It’s important to understand that for many campaigns, they are often a work in progress right up until the end, because the GM will often wish to adapt them to the actions of their players at the table. GMs can rarely anticipate every decision their players will make, and should be somewhat flexible with decisions they make whilst creating their campaigns. The campaign is there to facilitate the game, and if the campaign prevents people from having fun at the table, then both the campaign and game has failed.

With this in mind, there are three main considerations when it comes to creating a campaign:

  • The Rules System
  • The Characters
  • The Setting

If you recall, the biggest mistake that a GM can make is to overplan, and as such, I will be focusing on an inside-out approach to design, where I will create only what we need to play, and then make it up from there. This will not only minimise my own work, but also allow my players to collaborate of the creation and development of the game as we progress.

Making The Rules

One of the key decisions to be made at this stage is what rules system we will be using. This decision is key in determining how conflict resolution is handled, and shapes a lot of the expectations regarding the sort of things that the players can hope to achieve. The mechanics may also impact the narrative outcomes of the stories being told, and simple mechanical tweaks can make two otherwise identical campaigns vastly different in the way they play and the tone they impart.

It’s not wise to significantly adjust the rules during the game itself, as this can create confusion over the expectations of the players and their characters. However, the GM is advised to focus on the key rules of the game, such as the principles behind conflict resolution, so that they can come up with fair rulings for various situations that come up during the game. If such events become commonplace, they can be developed into something that can become a solid houserule at the table at a later time, but often it is better to come up with a quick and fun resolution at the time to keep the gameplay moving.

The D20 System

There are numerous rules systems available commercially, or simple conflict resolution mechanics that can be adapted to any form of campaign. One of the most prevalent systems is the D20 System, the basis of the widely popular Dungeons and Dragons game. It’s a highly flexible system with a very simple conflict resolution mechanic at it’s core:

If 1d20 + modifiers => Target DC, then action succeeds.

It’s simple, sublime, and very easy to understand and adapt to. It’s also one of the most comeprehensive rules sets covering a wide range of actions and situations, in various degrees of complexity. This had led to a huge library of material that can be used in games, as well as a number of key evolutions in many different systems.

My own history with roleplaying started with the simplistic “Easy to Master” Black Box version of Dungeons and Dragons that was released in 1991. Whilst the full comprehensive version of the D20 System can be somewhat overwhelming to new players, the streamlined version presented in many basic boxed sets make for ideal entry points for newer players, and as such I will be looking to developing a hybrid between the D20 System and Basic D&D.

I could speak forever on the actual rules mechanics of the system, but one of the best features of the Black Box set, and other basic sets, was how it eased new players in over time, using practical demonstrations to teach the system. These systems often focus on intruding new elements step by step, and I can use a similar method to develop and present the system we will ultimately be using. As such, I can focus more on developing the rules being used as we plan our first adventure and session in later steps of this series.

Enter the Players

At it’s core, any roleplaying game is based on the adventures of a shared party of PCs, or Player Characters. These are the stars of the show, and it’s the decisions and reactions of these characters, and their players, that drive the storyline.

Like campaigns themselves, the PCs can range from simplistic one-dimensional stereotypes, to complex narrative creations formed through the dynamics of the player, interactions with the rest of the party, and the sandbox world provided by the GM.

Playing a great PC is as much a skill that can be developed by time and practice as being a GM, and many players can easily be overwhelmed if they feel forced to create a lot of options at once, especially if they have little prior experience with roleplaying. Players can come from a range of backgrounds and expectations, meaning they might see their PC as a pawn or gaming piece, or want to see their PCs as widely developed and integrated into the setting as their favourite protagonists from epic literature.

As such, deciding upon and managing player expectations is an important part of any campaign. The players need to know if they are trained heroes, epic gods, bumbling fish out of water, or impotent specks of dust on the eyelids of eldritch beings. These decisions shape a campaign, and are often backed up by the rules system being used.

Given my desire to create an introductory game that can teach my players how to to play, it should be fairly clear that the PCs will be simplistic, but with room to develop alongside my players. It’s important that the PCs are competent enough to be engaging to play, but not provide too many options that overwhelm the players with decision paralysis.

A Stable Party?

However, whilst the characters themselves is a simple decision, I get to make a further decision regarding the party that will have a significant impact on the campaign itself. Due to the fact that I will only have two players to start with, playing with only two PCs will cause some issues that need to be covered.

In most games, players only get a single character at the time. This allows the players to dedicate their focus to their own character, and each character can have a reasonable amount of time in the spotlight at the table. However, this standard is based on games having between four to six players, often with a mix of character skills and abilities to help the party succeed. As such, a party with only two PCs is somewhat underpowered.

I have a number of options to go with here. I could just go with an underpowered party, and modify adventures and encounters to take this into account. Alternatively, I could go with providing NPCs, or Non-Player Characters, to help round out the party. Both are workable options, but will require more work on my part as the GM, either in preparation or at the table.

An interesting alternative could be to off-load some of this extra work to the players themselves, by allowing them to run two PCs at the same time. This will help keep my players engaged for longer, as they run more than one PC. It also means that they can try out more than one type of character, so that they can explore more of the game at once.

To further build on this principle, we can introduce a “stable” of characters in the party. This stable allows the players to develop multiple characters at once, gives them spares to use when other characters are incapacitated, and will allow them to develop their roleplaying skills at their own pace. The ultimate aim here is to instill the idea that the party survival is more important than PC survival, so that the newer players don’t feel like they have lost if misfortune affects a character that they are running. It also means replacement PCs can be brought in quickly so as to not slow down the game.

What’s the Story?

Finally, it’s time to work on the storyline and background of the campaign itself. This provides the context of the game itself, and gives the players something to work with.

The majority of the basic sets that exist often used simplistic settings, often built using an inside-out design principle. As such, they only provide enough information to the players as they need to play, and leave plenty of room for the GM to build upon the setting as the campaign progresses.

Welcome to The Vale

One of the more memorable such settings is The Vale, the setting of the D&D Fast-Play series of modules that TSR released to celebrate 25 years.

The Vale was a very simple, very generic setting, in which the PCs live in a simple river valley surrounded by mountains. This gives the PCs a simple area to explore and have early adventures in as they learn the game and it’s possibilities. The Vale provides everything that the party needs, including the vitally important feature of a civilised home base which they can use to rest and prepare, referred to as Haven. It even includes The Patriarch, a simple father-like patron figure used to provide adventure hooks for the party.

This simplistic campaign setting is idea for the teaching environment that I am looking to foster, whilst providing a blank canvas to expand upon as the campaign progresses. The Vale is both isolated and civilised, so the players can experience the safety of adventuring in a frontier environment without disrupting the politics of the wider campaign world too much.

I also have the option that I can use a lot of the assets from the Fast Play modules, and other basic sets, with minimal fuss. It means less work for me, as these modules are often less complex than normal, and focus more on teaching the rules step by step rather than providing complex storylines with many plot twists.

Return to Basics

In many ways, these basic sets keep the campaign focused on the core gameplay aspects of Dungeons and Dragons – exploring mysterious ruins like Dungeons, and fighting dangerous monsters like Dragons. This is the gameplay that got me hooked, both as a player and a GM, and I look forward to bringing this gameplay to my players!